Tomas sat back in his chair and savored the last few sips of his hot beachgrape tea, smiling as he savored both the warmth of the drink and its cool, refreshing flavor. It tasted much like the sunset looked, splayed over and upon the freezing Lake before him. [If you’ve never tried beachgrape tea hot, you should at least once. It’s not unlike drinking hot chocolate that has been left to cool, but reversed. I don’t personally enjoy it, but taverngoers keep asking for it, even now.] A calm breeze floated off the water, creating ripples that bore small floes of ice to collide with the frozen shelf upon which he sat. The cool air found its way up one of his sleeves; a chill jolted his body, waking him from the lullaby of the ice and waves. His mug now empty, Tomas walked the ten feet back to solid shore while he still had light and climbed the few stone steps to the inn.
“Quite the sunset today, eh, Tom?” Grant stood behind the bar in the tavern, mixing drinks for a few locals celebrating the end of the day.
“One to remember, for sure. Thanks for the tea.” He put the empty mug on the bar and shouldered the pack he had left with Grant, who eyed its bulk suspiciously.
“You gonna be able to lug that all the way home? Kari was in town not two hours ago, in case you were lookin’.”
“I’ll keep my eye out, Grant. Thanks. Have a good night.”
“You too, boy. Keep an eye out on your walk home, too. Can never be too cautious on a warm winter’s night.”
Tomas’ back was already threatening to ache for the next week when he heard his name called out from behind him. Turning, he saw Kari walking toward him, her strong, easy strides quickly closing the distance between them.
A slight smile creeped onto her face as she stopped beside him. “That’s quite the load you’ve got there. You’re not headed home with that, are you?”
“My folks think I am.”
“I’d give you just past the Glacier Peak trailhead. You’d drop the load there and come back for some help.”
“I’d make it at least halfway, thank you.” Tomas was smiling too.
“Well, we’ll never know for sure. Give it here.”
Tomas didn’t say thank you; Kari wouldn’t have accepted it. He knew, though, that she could see the relief on his face through the gathering dark.
They walked together through the clear night, watching the Moon rise before them. They talked of the weather, the other side of the mountains, the Wheat harvest, the bottom of the Lake. It was easy conversation; they’d talked about these things their whole lives.
The Moon was full that night, and Tomas could easily pick out peaks south of the road–to his right–and farmhouses dotting the rolling black landscape to his left. The landscape rippled with the wind, fields of Black Wheat shifting to reveal the snow underneath, shimmering in the Moonlight. He was content, he realized. An evening walk beneath a Full Moon with his closest friend. A comfortably warm evening, too. It was a rare treat this time of year for it to be this warm without climbing above freezing. [Too many days above freezing and Black Wheat farmers start to sweat. It’s not the heat itself, it’s fear. It doesn’t take much snowmelt before the crops start to go too.]
Kari stopped walking so abruptly Tomas took two more steps before her quiet intensity penetrated his reverie. When he turned to ask why she’d stopped so suddenly, she lifted a finger to her lips, green eyes aflame, focused on something past Tomas. She was slowly, quietly removing the pack from her shoulders. His eyes widened, though he didn’t know what had put Kari on edge. Slowly, he turned to follow her gaze and saw nothing.
A light breeze sighed through the silent fields of Black Wheat surrounding them.
The heads of grain to Tomas’ right shivered. He froze.
Knowing its cover was blown, the mountain lion leapt from its cover of darkness, claws and fangs borne to their fullest. Kari was just as fast, though, and somehow got Tomas’ heavy pack between the boy and the cat. It bounced off and snarled at her as it regained its footing. She may well have snarled back as she wrapped her heavy leather coat around her left arm, positioning herself between the lion and Tomas. It leapt again, this time at Kari, who took the pounce squarely, using the leather to protect herself from claws and teeth. The force of the impact knocked her down, but she was ready, and deflected the cat with her knee. It landed hard on its side as she rolled to her feet. Then Kari pounced, using her right hand to pin the cat’s front paws together on the ground and bringing her huge left hand down onto its head. It didn’t do more than daze the animal, but a good, solid hit was enough to convince it to retreat. And retreat it did.
“Why’d I have to be born in the coldest place in the world? It doesn’t even seem warm enough to get cougars this far north.” She rebuttoned her coat and gave a mock shiver, though Tomas knew she was still too on edge to actually be cold.
“What would I do without you?” Tomas smiled in amazement as she reshouldered his pack and started to walk again.
“You can thank me by explaining to my mother why my coat is ripped again. Not sure she’ll believe me on my own.”
“If you’d spend less time in the mountains ripping it on every rock face you see fit to climb, she’d be more likely to believe you.”
The two friends shared a moment of nervous laughter as their pulses returned to normal.
“That’s probably true. I’m too close to give up, though,” Kari said after a moment.
“And once you find the place to put that road, I’ll be your loudest advocate. But maybe you should stop risking your winter clothes. There’s so much time in the summer to just explore.”
“There’s time in the winter, too. No sense wasting it.”
“That, my friend, is a difficult point to argue with. I’ll give it to you tonight.”
Together, they laughed and continued down the road.
They dropped the pack off on Tomas’ porch; he followed Kari home to help explain the new tears in her coat. [Kari was notorious for damaging her clothes. She spent the bulk of her free time exploring the mountains, tirelessly searching for a pass to build a road through them. She was rarely hurt on her expeditions, but her clothes frequently suffered a more tragic fate.] Bringing a witness provided the sway she needed, and her mother grudgingly agreed to mend the damage without assigning consequences, though not before making it clear she was on thin ice. [It was hard for us back then to get more of almost anything. Caravans came through, sure, but they were few and far between during the winter. Leather was a commodity we couldn’t make much of for ourselves; we didn’t have the cows to spare.]
Tomas walked back on his own. He had no pack to carry and was now far enough away from the mountains that he wouldn’t be bothered by wildlife. It was a walk he’d been making his whole life without incident.
Despite his path involving the main road in or out of town, it was rare for Tomas to encounter anyone on his way home from Kari’s, particularly after dark. He did that night: a cloaked and hooded man coming from the east, headed toward the village. He had nothing but a small satchel at his hip, sandals on his exposed feet, and seemed to be wearing nothing but thin clothes under his light cloak. It was strikingly red, even in the Moonlight, and floated about him ethereally in the light breezes of the night. His hood came low over his face, and Tomas could see the glint of the full Moon on a black brooch at his throat, holding his cape around him. Details beyond these, though, escaped his dark eyes.
“Is this the way to town?” His voice was raspy; the words seemed to slither from under the hood.
“It is. Here, take my coat. I’m closer to my house than you are to town, and it’s only going to get colder.”
The man shook his head and continued walking. Tomas tried to think of something to call after him, to warn him of cougars or frostbite, but somehow, he knew that his words would be ignored. Instead, he simply watched him disappear over the next hill, mystified by the interaction.
[It was a few days before Tomas was in town again. Chores at home and in the fields occupied most of his time, and going into town was more of a commitment than free time in the evenings allowed. A trip to town required a reason, but that reason rarely took up the whole day. Going to town was the closest thing Tomas got to a real day off, and he made sure to enjoy his errands–and the time between them–as much as possible.]
His first stop was always the inn. Invariably, Grant and a few of his patrons would smile and greet Tomas as he walked through the door, setting his pack down in a corner before approaching the bar.
“News from the road, Grant?”
“No news; not much traffic. Rumors, though, they’re sprouting up plenty.”
“Rumors, huh? Anything to do with a man in nothing but cottons and a curiously light cape?”
“Met him on the road, actually. Same night as I was in town last, as it happens. I tried to give him my coat, but he wasn’t having any of it.”
“You know better than to give up your coat on a winter’s night, boy.”
“I was on my way home from Kari’s, already more than halfway. And it was warm that night, you remember. You mentioned it yourself.”
Grant rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. “S’pose that’s fair. Cold doesn’t seem to affect him the same way it does us anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
Grant looked conspiratorially around and leaned over the bar, close to Tomas. “He’s been sleeping with the window open. I’ve felt the draft from my bed; Jillian and I had to get an extra quilt to stay comfortable. I’m lucky he’s my only guest.”
Tomas’ eyes widened. “But it’s been so cold the last few nights.”
Grant shivered with the memory. “You’re telling me.”
Memories of the stranger fresh in his mind and a hearty tavern lunch under his belt, he made his way to the bakery, a small sheaf of Wheat tucked under his arm. The crisp, slightly bitter aroma of baking black dough greeted him even before he climbed the bakery’s porch steps. Chimes over the door tinkled as he entered, and Loretta, a robust woman with an ample waistline, greeted him with a smile. Her husband, Al, was nowhere to be seen. [Alfred the Baker wasn’t a bad man. That said, few would’ve leapt at the opportunity to call him a good man. Most days, he didn’t do much of anything. This left the operation of the bakery he’d inherited to Loretta, who accepted the responsibility with hardly a bat of her eyes.]
“Tommy! What might I do for you today?”
“Three loaves and a story, if you’ve got one.”
“Have I.” She took the Wheat from Tomas, tossing it into a bin containing more of the same. “Fellow dressed to catch his death came in yesterday with naught but coin and demanded to buy some dough.”
“Red cape, I take it.”
“And nothing else!”
Tomas couldn’t help but smile at her fervor. “And he brought nothing to trade?”
“Grant said he warned the man after he asked where to find me. Didn’t do no good, though. He insisted I take his coin.”
“Was it at least good coin?”
“Naturally. Wasn’t happy about it, though. I don’t even know what he meant to do with raw dough anyway.” She took a sack from under the counter and picked up a fresh loaf of black bread.
“Oh, Loretta, there’s no need to give us the fresh ones. It’ll be hard as a rock by the time I make it home anyway. Save it for someone closer to town. Yesterday’s batch is fresh enough for us.”
Loretta brought her hands down on the counter, making Tomas jump. “Yesterday’s batch isn’t fresh enough for the birds outside, and bite your tongue for suggesting it!” Flour, black like soot, filled the air for a few moments, slowly resettling on any surface it could find.
Tomas laughed. “Fine, then. This morning’s batch.”
Loretta was less than amused, but she conceded to putting the less fresh loaves into the bag. “I swear. No matter how much more you look like your mother as the years pass, you keep sounding more and more like your father.”
“Grapes and vines and all that.”
“I suppose so. Be careful around that stranger, you hear?”
“I will, Loretta. Give Al my best.”
“If I see the lump. Stay warm!”
The chimes tinkled again as Tomas left the warm, aromatic building.
The final stop on Tomas’ list of errands was Cal’s workshop. [The blacksmith of our little Home at the time, Cal, was a big man. His knees didn’t fit under the tavern’s tables when he sat, and he had to stoop in every building in town except the ones on his property. He was thick, too, with arms bigger around than Tomas’ legs. Despite his stature, there was nobody north of the mountains with fingers as nimble as Cal’s.] Few men handled the cold like Cal, whose arms and legs were exposed beyond the knees and elbows. Warmer though it was by the forge at which he worked, Tomas still couldn’t remove his jacket in Cal’s shop, open as it was to the wind and the cold.
His back to the wall, Cal saw Tomas coming even before he joined him under his high ceiling. “Pleasant travels, I hope.”
“Always when they bring me here, Cal. How do you find yourself today?”
Tomas was amazed to see him wipe sweat from his brow. “Enjoying today’s warmth after the chill of the last few days. I’ve those hinges you dropped off last week. And a little something extra, too.”
“Cal, you shouldn’t’ve.”
“Oh, it took no time.” He produced a bar with several hooks attached. “For your coats. You have a few nails to spare, I hope?”
“For this? Certainly. Your ingenuity never fails to amaze me.”
“It was Grant’s idea, actually. For just inside the tavern door. Figured I’d work another up now that I know how, see how long it’ll actually take.”
“Speaking of Grant, have you met his newest guest?”
“Cloaked and hooded fella? Saw him headed back toward the inn from Loretta’s, I think. Munching on a fresh loaf of the local delicacy, he was.”
“You call raw dough a delicacy?”
Tomas’ eyes widened. “He demanded to pay coin for a lump of Loretta’s dough. Took it and left.”
“Bet that went over well.” A moment passed, then Cal straightened up, setting his hammer down for the first time. He scratched his beard. “How do you suppose…?”
“I’m not sure, Cal. Grant said he’d been sleeping with the window open, too. Arrived that last warm evening a few days ago.”
Cal was already pulling a warmer layer over his cotton shirt. “We’d better go have a little chat with Grant. It’d be wise for someone that close to him to have as much information as possible.”